It's fortunate that utes are tough because they have it pretty damn tough when it comes to buyer expectations. Utes have to be everything for everyone: a daily driver, a family mover, a tradie's workhorse, a weekend tourer.
But the concern for some traditionalists is that, as modern utes draw ever closer to cars in terms of styling and refinement, their old-school roots are being forsaken.
No bloody chance. Despite what old Cruiser-loving Reg down the pub harps on about, utes are still great work trucks – rugged and versatile – and very handy towers too. The bonus is now they are also comfortable and stacked with more safety gear, passive and active, than ever before – well, a lot of them are.
If you're looking for a highly functional vehicle, big enough for friends and family, suited for work and play and able to head off-road when required, throw your cash down on a dual-cab ute. Here are the best five out there.
The Ranger has set the gold standard for modern utes, in terms of, well, everything; comfort, fit and finish, design, ride and handling, safety… like I said, everything.
When push comes to shove, it's not in the same realm yet as the HiLux or the 70 Series for pure off-road unstoppability, but it's very close.
The Ranger is a big truck (2202kg, 5355mm long with a 3220mm wheelbase) but it never feels unwieldy to drive. Its 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo-diesel donk (147kW/470Nm) nudges the hefty unit along, with ease, at a rate of knots.
It's a good-looking ute, and roomy with a subtly stylish in-cabin feel. It can tow up to 3500kg (braked). Cool, classy and capable, the Ranger ($57,600 plus on-roads) is also tool-shed tough.
Upset 70 Series fans let me have both barrels when I described this as "ugly as sin" in a yarn about its 2016 launch. Well, the idiots obviously didn't wipe the tears out of their eyes to read the next bit where I described its appearance as "bloody awesome."
It is tall and boxy but it looks the business. With a grunty 4.5-litre V8 turbo-diesel engine (151kW/430Nm), five-speed manual gearbox and 130-litre tank, it's work- and touring-friendly.
It can tow a maximum of 3500kg (braked). Sure, this is a ute light on in the safety department (three-star ANCAP) and has few creature comforts (air con is a $2761 option!), but makes up for that with hardcore bush cred – and we're not talking Kate Bush… or George W.
Pricing is high ($68,990 for the GXL) and Toyota only ever does just enough to keep punters coming back, nothing more, but with something this good, that doesn't matter.
The HiLux has topped vehicle sales charts in Australia for good reason: it embodies plenty of the elements of contemporary utes (refinement, style, comfort) without ever turning its back on those who love it for its go-anywhere ability.
Toyota is riding the crest of a wave built on a top-quality product and an unflinching brand loyalty. The 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel (130kW/450Nm) is a real winner, matched well with the six-speed auto box.
The HiLux is well suited to job site duties days and is able to tow 3200kg (maximum, braked). The HiLux ($55,990) is better than the previous-generation model – it's better-looking, smoother and quieter – but it's not the best of this bunch. The harsh-riding ute is still not as refined as Ranger, Amarok et al.
A full suite of off-road tech, as well as a five-star ANCAP rating, go some of the way to cancelling out any negatives.
CarsGuide has driven these bad boys through the guts of the South Australian desert; over sand, rocks, backpackers, the lot. The only time we managed to prevent its forward progress was through driver error.
It's no slouch when it comes to off-roading. The BT-50 has a lively 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo-diesel engine (147kW/470Nm), mated to a slick-shifting six-speed auto box – one of the smoothest around – and the beefy Mazda gets around just as easily and comfortably on dirt tracks as it does on main roads.
It holds its own at speed on rutted back tracks, however, there is some thumping over the bumps, whereas Ranger and Amarok would soak those up. The BT-50 has a five-star ANCAP rating. Steering is light for something so bulky.
It is rated to tow 3500kg (maximum, braked). The 2016 facelift version ($50,890) featured a smoothed-out front end, polarising in the past, but a bull bar is still a worthy addition for this Mazda.
The great looking Amarok has always had its fans, because it's a classy yet highly functional ute, but its 2.0-litre four-cylinder twin-turbo engine and lack of low-range gearing (with the auto) were factors a few traditional off-road tourers just couldn't get their heads around.
Well, the new V6 Ultimate ($67,990) does away with those baseless concerns, simply by driving at full noise over the top of them.
The 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6 (165kw/550Nm) has given the 5254mm-long Amarok a shot of Fury Road grunt; it's really added mongrel to the mix. (Not forgetting that those figures bounce to 180kW/580Nm when you're in overboost territory.)
It can tow 3000kg (maximum, braked), which is 500kg fewer than its rivals can, but the good news is that all the cool stuff from the 2.0-litre model remains: eight-speed auto, comfortable interior, sublime ride and handling, class-leading tray, and more. The V6 Amarok is yet to be rated by ANCAP.
In terms of refinement and safety, the Foton Tunland doesn't hold a candle to these other utes, but it is the best of the budget ute mob and it certainly packs a lot of good stuff into a well-priced package ($30,990).
With a 2.8-litre turbo-diesel Cummins engine (120kW/360Nm) and a Getrag five-speed manual gearbox, the Tunland combines top-class components in a neat and tidy, good looking unit. Fit and finish has improved, as has ride and handling.
The 5310mm Tunland is one of the largest utes available here but, when driving, it never feels like you're steering the Titanic. It is rated to tow 2500kg (maximum, braked). The Tunland has a three-star ANCAP rating.
We've just driven it, go here for the full review.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in July 2017 and has now been updated.